>The latest “indie” craze, folk psychedelia, has its roots deeply entrenched in the history of modern music. The folk is almost never that of the Dylans and Mitchells of the past, but instead heavily references John Fahey’s “American Primitive” movement of the 1960s and 70s; while the psychedelia is, of course, drawn directly from the likes of Pink Floyd and more modern shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine.
On their eponymous 2006 debut, Brightblack Morning Light took the burgeoning genre under their wing and produced a truly soaring psych-folk album that was built on the foundations of their long history with the legendary Will Oldham. The album used exciting instrumentation and percussion from across many styles that, when combined with the repetitiveness that all but defines psych-folk and the breathy harmonies between core duo Rachel Hughes and Nathan Shineywater, make for a genre defying mix of blues, rock, jazz, Latin, and – of course – folk.
The second time around, BBML attempted to repeat the prodigious results of their first effort. And, rather than build upon what had laid the groundwork for a lot of music growth and exploration, they did just that: repeated. The vocal recordings have a distinctly grainy, old-radio, Devendra Banhart quality to them, and the organs, horns, and woodwinds are out in full force. Since Brightblack Morning Light was such an intensely fulfilling album, it is difficult to criticize Motion To Rejoin (Matador, 2008), especially considering the excellence that lies at its heart. It is exactly as one would hope – jazzy, gritty, instrumentally diverse, vocally ghostly, lyrically eerie – but it is essentially an extension of its predecessor.
When I first heard Motion, I was disappointed that nothing new had been posed to listeners. The same repetitions, the same blues cadences, the same droning organ. “A Rainbow Aims” was the only track that I really enjoyed. Upon my second listen, I had found two more: “Gathered Years” and “Past a Weatherbeaten Fencepost.” And, when I sat down to listen a third time, I finally understood the album.
Motion To Rejoin is not a folk album in any traditional sense. The songs are not verse-chorus-verse and there is no acoustic guitar. In fact, the songs are just epic repetitions without structure (and I mean that in the best way possible). What I finally came to understand about the album is that it can’t be listened to as an “album” in the way that we’re used to. Splitting Motion into separate tracks is akin to trying to split the movements of Mozart’s Requiem. They can be listened to separately, but the power of the piece is in the sum of its parts.
The repetition that can often be a little tedious is the same as any leitmotif or theme in classical music. It is meant to be noticed, to ground both the listener and the piece itself. It is the apex around which the rest of the piece or, in this case, the album orbits. The reason the three chord blues cadence repeats in at least four different tracks as the underlying theme is that it is the underlying theme.
In light of my newfound understanding, I gave Motion a fourth listen (and have since given it many more), only to find that each time I enjoyed its repetitive nature more and more as I came to understand its purpose. While at first I reviled the album as a whole because of its parts, it wasn’t until I came to understand how each part worked together that I could truly appreciate the album in its entirety.
Yet, the repetition of a leitmotif, a fairly unusual approach to modern folk music, can get a bit bogged down in itself. “Summer Hoof,” “Hologram Buffalo,” and “When Beads Spell Power Leaf” all get wrapped up in the cadence to the point of dragging. Instead of lulling the listener into the theme, BBML is at times forcing it down our throats. What’s more, the three-chord theme is, while purposeful, painfully simple. The band has a lot of room to either move and fill in space or to let that space ring out, but the simplicity that they chose hints at minimalism that borders on laziness.
The structurelessness of the repetition that makes the songs so epic also leads to a sense of buildlessness, in which the songs don’t move enough but rather stay too comfortably rooted in the foundation of their thematic cadence. The effect is soothing at times, haunting at others, and just plain sleepy a little too often.
The blending of classical leitmotif structure with modern instrumentation and folk stylings is a historically significant event, and it is why I was able to come around to this album so quickly. It is rare that I harshly judge an album on first listen and it manages to turn my opinion in such a short amount of time. The novelty and success with which Brightblack Morning Light has undertaken, composed, and recorded Motion To Rejoin should not be overlooked, even in the face of flawed results.